One of the most unusual and wonderful presents I ever received was from a Catholic nun. And I don’t even remember her name. I was a high school junior attending weekly Catechism in the straight-backed wooden pews of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. St. Mary’s was brutally cold and darkly solemn that Wednesday in mid-December. A few pale candles waved weakly from the alter, perhaps waving goodbye to my slipping faith. It’s a terrible thing to doubt your Christianity during Christmastime.
The Sister who taught us now was a soft-spoken but confident woman with slow and elegant movements. She announced, “I have a Christmas gift for each of you. It’s actually from God.”
She passed around a shallow ceramic bowl filled with scraps of paper and continued to speak. “On each of these slips of paper is a gift from God. I promise you that God will grant you this gift sometime in your life when you need it most. I do not know when that will be. It may be next week, it may be in two years. But I promise.”
I reeled at what I considered the blasphemy of her words. Who was she to promise a Christmas present from the Almighty? This kind of “I-represent-God’s-will” grandstanding was exactly what eroded my belief system. I was tired of hearing what I considered hypocritical messages from people of faith. My high school counterparts each took a slip of paper as the bowl passed my way. I looked at them anxiously, wondering what their slips of paper revealed. Then I took mine.
In typed blocked letters was the word “GENTLENESS.” Gentleness? Who the fuck wants gentleness? I remember thinking that God had a pretty crappy typewriter. I crumpled the scrap and kicked it under the pew ahead of me.
Sister continued to explain, “I promise that God will give your gift to you.”
Sometime over that Christmas break, I had a fight with one of my sisters. I don’t remember what we fought about. After we had each skulked away, I thought of my gift and wondered where God had been during that fight – why didn’t He – the Almighty – make a grand appearance to provide the ‘promised gentleness?’ And I thought about gentleness – what did it mean to be gentle? Gentle in your heart? Your words? Did gentleness stop you from fighting or hurting someone you love? Did it make you rise above the petty conflict? Is gentleness a realization that the fight isn’t as important as the person? I thought about my sister and how I would want people in the world to be gentle with her. Soon I was calm; I was feeling…I didn’t know…could that moment be the experience of gentleness? Was this the promised gift?
I found my sister in another room of the house and we reconciled.
A few years later in college, I had to initiate an uncomfortable discussion with my college roommate. I truly hoped that I would display the kind of patience necessary for this talk to go well. And I wondered ‘Is this time? Will the promised gentleness will come now?’ Though I shook with nervousness (being very new to confrontation), the conversation went very well. I held my ground. Respected his feelings. After it was over, I asked myself, ‘Was that the moment of the gift?’
I asked that question again a year or two later as my best friend cried in my arms over a failing relationship. How could I find the right soothing words? What do you say when someone’s entire world just ended? ‘Please, let now be the time of the gift.’ I begged. ‘Please God, let me find words of comfort. I’m not good at this stuff, but help me be gentle with her broken heart.’ And somehow I said things that made her feel better. Or maybe gentleness wasn’t in the words I said, but in holding her, in feeling sorrow with her.
Later in life when it was I who desperately grieved a failed relationship and my own heart was pierced with jagged regrets and unspoken recriminations, I wondered the familiar question ‘Will the gentleness come now?’ It did.
And I wept with gratitude.
I have been visited by gentleness many times since then, yet I still don’t know that I could define it. Does gentleness yank you out of anger? Or is it more like a child’s soft but insistent tug on the back of your shirt? Perhaps gentleness seeps into you like milk through an Oreo, a delicious and thorough sensation. Gentleness could have a far-away voice or perhaps it acts like a warm baking pie that wafts into consciousness and changes your perception. Or maybe gentleness is present in buttery, toasty yellow, a pretty color acting as a distraction, encouraging a better part of yourself to swim to the surface.
I still don’t know.
All I know is that God kept the nun’s promise, over and over. I still pray for gentleness to come to me when I need it most. And when my heart feels it or my eyes get wet with tears, I often think, ‘Is this it, God? Is today the day you keep the nun’s promise?’ I have since left the Catholic Church.
But I still have faith.
And now, I offer you a gift from my own crappy word processor, typed in all caps. This gift is actually from God. But it will come to you. I promise.